Harrisburg recorded 22 homicides in 2020, making it the most deadly year for violence in the city for more than 30 years.
The death toll represented a nearly 60-percent increase compared to the prior year.
Municipalities outside of Harrisburg in Dauphin County logged three homicides in 2020, a substantially lower number than 2019, but the city’s total lifted the county’s total to 25 homicides, an increase over 2019.
Cumberland County, meanwhile, also counted more killings: eight homicides, up from four in 2019.
The local increase in deadly violence last year mirrors national trends showing an unprecedented one-year increase in homicides amid a pandemic and social unrest.
RELATED: Here’s who died by homicide in Dauphin County in 2020RELATED: Here’s who died by homicide in Cumberland County in 2020
Philadelphia saw nearly 500 people killed, a 40-percent increase.
Chicago police reported more than 750 murders, a jump of more than 50 percent compared with 2019, according to NPR. By mid-December, Los Angeles saw a 30% increase over the previous year with 322 homicides. There were 437 homicides in New York City by Dec. 20, nearly 40% more than the previous year, the news station reported.
Harrisburg’s tally includes one death previously not reported publicly: the stabbing of a 32-year-old man during a fight in 2019 who police say died from his injuries in May last year.
Police also believe a man killed last year, fatally shot another man in the city three months prior to his own demise by gun violence.
In Dauphin County, four of those killed were women; 21 were men.
In Cumberland County, an equal number of men and women were killed, with all of the women dying from alleged domestic violence, according to prosecutors.
The age of those killed last year ranged from a 45-day-old baby poisoned by fentanyl in the city to an elderly woman who authorities say was killed by her caretaker in Lower Allen Township.
The definition of homicide
For the purposes of this homicide count, PennLive relied on coroner rulings.
“Homicide” is simply the taking of one life by another person. That means all homicides aren’t criminal. There are also legally justified homicides (think self-defense.) This count includes two homicides that were ruled justified.
The count does not include cases where prosecutors filed criminal charges in deaths that were ruled “accidental” by coroners but had elements of recklessness or gross negligence.
For example, Cumberland County prosecutors last year filed third-degree murder charges after a 17-year-old Newville driver allegedly crossed the center line and crashed head-on into another vehicle. Authorities say the 17-year-old was driving more than 90 mph with THC and fentanyl in his system. The February crash killed a 46-year-old woman driving the other vehicle.
But this review doesn’t count that death, nor cases where alleged drug dealers were charged with death by drug delivery, because those deaths were ruled accidental by coroners.
For the second year in a row, there were no fatal police shootings reported in Dauphin County or Cumberland County.
Fatal police shootings are counted as homicides because they involve the taking of a life by another, even if the killing is determined to be legally-justified by prosecutors.
In 2018, there were eight fatal police shootings in the five-county area: 3 in Dauphin County; 2 in Lancaster County; 2 in York County and 1 in Lebanon County.
The impact of COVID-19
The increase in homicides in the Harrisburg area and across the country is alarming and disconcerting, yet not very surprising, according to criminologists.
Criminologists generally believe the pandemic — which has disproportionately impacted communities of color — has intensified existing structural factors that lead to violence, such as concentrated poverty, while also disrupting law enforcement and social services designed to respond to crime, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Jonathan Lee, associate professor of criminal justice at Penn State Harrisburg, told PennLive the pandemic brought what he considered a near-optimal condition for interpersonal violence in many urban municipalities across the nation.
COVID-19 brought a number of changes to our daily lives that could contribute to conditions under which people experience differences and disagreements more frequently due to simply spending more time together in the confinement of their homes, Lee said.
“This entire situation was forced upon us and without much forewarning,” he said. “Coupled with high unemployment and underemployment, a lack of chance to vent their anxiety or stress on others in a healthy and legitimate fashion (due to social distancing and business closedowns) must have brought unprecedented and perhaps insurmountable adversities to many people.”
Harrisburg didn’t see an increase in homicides because of any unique characteristic of homicide, Lee said, but rather, Harrisburg, like many other urban communities across the nation, suffered from a surge in all forms of interpersonal conflicts ranging from arguments to homicide.
Dauphin County logged 25 homicides last year, a slight increase from 2019, when there were 23. The county recorded 15 homicides in 2018.
The county’s increase was entirely due to the uptick in city homicides, a level not seen since at least 1988, which was as far back as PennLive could trace annual data. The city came close to last year’s total of 22 homicides in 2013 when 21 cases were counted. The city also logged 20 homicides in 1995. District Attorney Fran Chardo said the city’s most violent times were in the 1970s when totals reached the 40s in some years.
City police filed charges against suspects in nine homicides last year and closed out two additional cases that were considered justified, or self-defense. That means the city police achieved a 50% clearance rate, the same rate at the end of 2019, but below the national average of 61%.
The clearance rate, however, typically continues to increase in subsequent months and years as police say they do not stop investigating unsolved cases. Harrisburg’s solve rate for 2019, for example, now has risen to 66%. Police expect to improve 2020′s rate as well. In fact, police say they have good leads in at least three of last year’s 11 open cases.
Outside of the city, the three homicides in other municipalities all were solved or closed last year. They included a domestic violence killing, a fatal robbery and a jail-cell fight that eventually led to the death of an inmate.
Harrisburg police Sgt. Kyle Gautsch said there were no new trends with the homicides that occurred in the city in 2020. Most of the victims were young men and the violence was committed with guns. Many of the deaths occurred over drug disputes, which mostly means disputes over money.
That’s why dealing in marijuana, often considered by many to be less dangerous than other drugs, still is incredibly dangerous, police say. The money generated is the same, or more than for other drugs, which can lead to opportunistic violence. At least one killing last year appeared to stem from a robbery over a small marijuana deal. One killing appeared gang-related and four are believed to be domestic violence.
Cumberland County reported eight homicides last year, doubling the total from 2019. The county logged three homicides in 2018 and two in 2017.
Three of last year’s homicides took place in Carlisle. Police Chief Taro Landis said some of the increased violence could be caused by people cooped up during the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s hard to say for sure.
At least half of the homicides in Cumberland County last year could be attributed to domestic violence, said Sean McCormack, chief deputy district attorney.
“This is neither surprising nor an unusual trend given the continued prevalence of domestic violence incidents both in our community and nationwide,” he said. “We need to continue efforts to keep the issue of domestic violence in the forefront of our conversations. Silence is the ally of domestic abusers.”
As a veteran prosecutor, McCormack said domestic violence is a vexing and complicated issue without easy solutions.
“I encourage victims, and abusers for that matter, to seek out help so that they do not become one of the statistics we are discussing here-homicide,” McCormack said.
Detectives from Cumberland County police agencies solved all but one of last year’s killings by filing criminal charges, for a nearly 88% clearance rate.